Michelle Obama’s Garden and the Hard Work of Growing Food

My newest TIME.com piece on the gardening movement:

The White House garden (photo from TIME.com)

On the long list of ways I’ve failed my family, I can now add my inability to grow crops. It’s not that I haven’t tried. If I calculated the dollars I’ve spent tilling, amending, mulching, staking, irrigating, fencing and fertilizing — all in my wildly unsuccessful quest to grow a couple hundred measly pounds of cellulose — I’d probably have to throw myself off a mound of organic manure. And that doesn’t even factor in the hundreds of hours of my labor or the opportunity costs of all the things I could have done with that time such as cooking for my family, for example, or reading to my children.

There’s a wonderful gardening movement underway in America, exemplified by the White House Kitchen Garden, lovingly detailed by Michelle Obama in her new book, American Grown. But when I see so many people growing food, I can’t help wondering, between my bouts of admiration and envy, if the transformative power of gardening has been oversold…

Read more: http://ideas.time.com/2012/05/30/the-problem-with-growing-your-own-food/#ixzz1wMLVooca

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director/author. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
This entry was posted in Erika @ TIME.com, My story, Women-related. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Michelle Obama’s Garden and the Hard Work of Growing Food

  1. Catherine Oleson says:

    This morning, with my breakfast coffee (it’s 7:10 AM here on the west coast), I found and read your article from Time on my morning home page.
    What an unpleasant, negative article! In theory, tt’s a review or a comment on Mrs. Obama’s new book; in fact, it’s about you, and it’s an unpleasant whine. I came here to your blog to find a place for comment, and have found a slew of equally negative-skewed articles. Frankly, it’s sour cream in my coffee. Maybe you need a vacation? Ms. Christakis, feel free to respond; but please do consider this comment.

    • Hi Catherine,
      I appreciate the feedback because it’s helpful to hear from all readers. Sounds like my style just isn’t a good fit for you, and that’s okay because there are literally billions of blogs and opinion page writers to choose from. I know I rub some people the wrong way. My writing is a mix of serious and fun; often both in the same piece. I write on everything from teen pregnancy rates, gun violence, homophobia, and child abduction — which are, indeed “negative and unpleasant” a lot of the time. I also write in a self-mocking way about my own personal failures — gardening is the least of them — and my fascination with popular culture, especially movies. I certainly don’t enjoy ruining people’s mornings but I also get lots of feedback from people who love my work. It’s a big world. I use irony in my work a lot – you either like it or you don’t. With respect to the gardening piece, it’s actually NOT a “review or comment on Mrs. Obama’s book.” I am an opinion page columnist, which means that I am hired to write opinions and bring my own narrative voice into the piece. It’s totally different than the straight reporting articles you would find in other parts of TIME.com where there is not an explicit narrative voice, although of course all reporting does have biases. My pieces are like Op-Eds. So, yes, I was writing about myself as an example of people who find gardening much harder and more frustrating than green thumbs. I also feel that I was making a very serious point in the last paragraph about the ways in which our society puts a lot of responsibility on individual behaviors, rather than tackling the tougher policy issues like the way that our educational system and agricultural policies are hurting children. It is, sadly, very unpleasant and I wish we could change things. I write weekly for TIME.com and I also occasionally for the Huffington Post. My TIME.com pieces generally come out on Tuesdays, so you can avoid me! I do appreciate hearing from you.

  2. I loved this! I think there is an opportunity for a good dialogue about where our food comes from and about the hard work that the people who grow our food go through to get food on the table. We don’t all have to grow our own food, but we need to be more conscious of where it comes from and the consequences of our food choices. Thanks for a post that makes me feel like less of a failure for my black thumb. 😉

  3. CW says:

    It’s people like you who the Food Industry was created for. If those who espoused the ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest actually lived by those credos they and yourself would be rotting in the ditches by the wayside because you’re not bright enough to produce anything meaningful for yourself. I’m ashamed that you and others have been coddled for so long that you have plenty of free time to whine about the misery of doing something, ANYthing, for yourself.

    • I thought twice about publishing your comment because it seems needlessly cruel. I’ll just say that I said many positive things about the White House garden and more generally – but I also tried to use my own failures (since it’s an opinion piece) as a reminder that it’s tricky business to grow food – at least for some of us. I love home-grown tomatoes and I commended Mrs. Obama’s and others’ efforts. BUT: gardening is one piece of a much bigger puzzle of how Americans can get reconnected to good healthy food. I don’t see much enthusiasm for getting rid of subsidies that flood our markets with high fructose corn syrup, for example, or bringing back physical fitness and playtime in schools. People can be a little judgmental about those of us who have genuinely tried – and continue to try!! – to garden. It’s meaningful work, yes, and I’m not trying to be a downer — just injecting a bit of realism into the debate. People who love gardening often can’t see how hard it is for some of us who aren’t exactly loving it. Does this mean we deserve to be culled from the Darwinian garden and called out for “whining?” I don’t think so. Like other hardworking adults, I produce all kinds meaningful things, of course, including vegetables I have grown, but I wouldn’t accuse you of being not “bright enough” to live my life. Anyway, I appreciate all the comments here and also at TIME.com. It’s an exciting topic and great to see all these passionate gardeners! Maybe one day I will be one, too.

  4. Carolyn says:

    Interesting piece, Erika, with lots of food for thought. (no pun! no pun!) I do so wish commenters would take more time to read what you’ve said, see that you’re trying to work both sides of the fence, am I wrong here?)and give some more constructive feedback. I’ll tell you what struck me foremost out of it all –

    “Once you successfully harvest a crop, you then have to figure out what to do with it, and it’s worth recalling that techniques such as canning, which are being enthusiastically resurrected in the 21st century, are incredibly time consuming and kept women tied, literally and figuratively, to the kitchen. Packaged and frozen foods may seem like a modern blight but, in reality, they freed women and helped them move into the workforce.”

    Was that necessarily a GOOD thing, catapulting mothers and wives into the daily grind? It seems to have resulted in latch-key kids, daycare expenses that eat up the woman’s paycheck, and double duty trying to wear yet another hat, and guilt and stress trying to know what takes precedence. I don’t feel “freed”. Through no desire of my own, I’ve worked in a factory job for the last 30 years. I’d consider a 12 hour shift of manual labor to be just a tad more back-breaking that slicing cucumbers and boiling out Mason jars. Oh, the joy of a sunrise and fresh air whilst in the onionI would have much rather provided for my children in a fashion that kept me close to them, responsible for them, and let me educate them about self-sufficiency, birds and bees, and the true value of labor as being more than a dollar,it being your life’s sustenance.

    What if, instead of technology jumping forward to freeze a billion little ears of corn from ConAgra, it had focused on getting me the same equipment, only smaller? Or a more efficient way to can/thresh/whatever my home grown food supply? You’re right, a discussion needs to be started. And only people who are thoughtful, express themselves well and honestly, and are respectful of others’ points of view can start it. Because it IS about our lives, and our quality of life. You were exactly correct about that..

    • Hello Carolyn,
      Thanks for such a thoughtful response. You’re right that I was trying to examine an issue from several angles and not just have a knee-jerk response. You raise an excellent point about paid work, and I know that there are many women who would prefer to care for their kids than go out to work, especially in exhausting factory jobs like you’ve described. I once read something funny about how it’s only academics — who have creative, enriching jobs with incredible amounts of control over their schedules and relatively benevolent employers — who write endlessly about how awful “staying at home” is compared to other forms of work! So, I hear you. It’s great to have a dialogue and learn things from other people… especially when they are civil. Have a good day.

  5. tif says:

    I’m going to be constructive here Erika. But, your article was bologna. You were an unsuccessful gardener for many reasons but none of them were because gardening is for “the poor, elderly and people with time on their hands”. Condoning that middle class familes continue to feed their families frozen food or processed food so they have time to read to their kids is irresponsible. We are in desparate times as far as the food supply goes and everyone needs to contribute to solving the problem, that involves encouraging and supporting people not telling them “you are over your head, just give up.” Think about the social responsibility you have before you state your personal expereince as being a universal one.

    • Thanks for the “constructive” feedback. You can read my additional thoughts on gardening, if you like, here:

      • tif says:

        I did. You may want to chill a little on the ‘butt hurt’ if you want folks to subscribe to your blog. Of course the gardener’s are going to disagree with everything you say, we don’t find the toiling back-breaking. Having a master’s in public health should put you in the know on how deficient our food system is and how detrimental it is becoming to America’s health. We gardeners are not a small minority, we are change agents. The farmer’s market you go to is the small faction of gardener’s you speak of and they see more and more market share every season. We are trying to help your children be independently healthy in their lifetime by sharing knowledge and learning not giving up and eating ice cream. Whatever sells magazines I suppose. But, here on your blog, you could perpetuate a much higher civic duty than you are. I’m sure you’re a nice person, good at your job, bright and successful, but your views expressed on this subject are irresponsible and out-of-touch. If you want followers, get your ear to the street.

  6. Thanks for writing back. I don’t feel irresponsible for speaking my truth, that some people find gardening hard. There are many ways to be a change agent; sometimes that requires flexibility and meeting people where they are. There’s a big tent that includes many people working to make a healthier, greener planet. I haven’t undermined gardeners. But read Aimee’s reply on gardening in Maine. She shouldn’t feel judged for saying that gardening is hard for some people. That’s how I see it, anyway. Dialogue is good and it’s terrific to see all this passion for a better world. As for me chilling more, good lord, no! I’m not a chill person. Haha. And I dont think people start blogs thinking realistically that they’re going to attract readers. I am deeply honored that anyone would be interested in my writing but I can’t do this unless I am true to myself first. Otherwise it just feels fake and a misuse of everyone’s time. Hope your garden is bountiful this summer.

  7. Derek says:

    Please either:

    1) stop writing publicly,


    2) stop being so negative and snarky

    Your arrogance and low self-esteem (great combination!) shout themselves from every sentence you write.

    • Dear Derek,
      I do my best and writing is one of the ways I earn a living.
      It’s a challenge but I feel grateful to have the opportunity to address issues I care about – and also have fun sometimes. Do you have a blog?

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